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Illegal Nuclear Deals Alleged

Investigators say Pakistan has secretly bought high-tech components for its weapons program from U.S. companies.

March 26, 2005|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A federal criminal investigation has uncovered evidence that the government of Pakistan made clandestine purchases of U.S. high-technology components for use in its nuclear weapons program in defiance of American law.

Federal authorities also say the highly specialized equipment at one point passed through the hands of Humayun Khan, an Islamabad businessman who they say has ties to Islamic militants.

Even though President Bush has been pushing for an international crackdown on such trafficking, efforts by two U.S. agencies to send investigators to Pakistan to gather more evidence have hit a bottleneck in Washington, said officials knowledgeable about the case.

The impasse is part of a larger tug-of-war between federal agencies that enforce U.S. nonproliferation laws and policymakers who consider Pakistan too important to embarrass. The transactions under review began in early 2003, well after President Pervez Musharraf threw his support to the Bush administration's war on terrorism and the invasion of neighboring Afghanistan to oust Pakistan's former Taliban allies.

"This is the age-old problem with Pakistan and the U.S. Other priorities always trump the United States from coming down hard on Pakistan's nuclear proliferation. And it goes back 15 to 20 years," said David Albright, director of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. Albright, a former United Nations weapons inspector in Iraq, favors getting tougher with Pakistan.

U.S. and European officials involved in nonproliferation issues say they recently discovered evidence that Pakistan has begun a new push to acquire advanced nuclear components on the black market as it tries to upgrade its decades-old weapons program.

Current and former intelligence officials said the same elements of the Pakistani military that they suspected of orchestrating efforts to buy American-made products may also have worked with Abdul Qadeer Khan, the so-called father of the Pakistani nuclear program who supplied weapons know-how and parts to Iran, North Korea and Libya. Abdul Qadeer Khan and Humayun Khan are not related.

The scheme U.S. investigators are trying to unravel involves Humayun Khan and Asher Karni, a South African electronics salesman and former Israeli army major.

Aided by Karni, who pleaded guilty to violating export control laws and began cooperating with U.S. authorities shortly after his arrest 15 months ago, investigators have traced at least one shipment of oscilloscopes from Oregon to South Africa and on to Humayun Khan.

The trail did not end there, however. According to recently unsealed Commerce Department documents, agents followed the shipment to the Al Technique Corp. of Pakistan, which had not been listed on any of the shipping or purchasing documents.

Al Technique describes itself as a manufacturer of precision lasers and other military-related products. But for federal investigators, "it was a big red flag," one U.S. official said.

"It's definitely a front for nuclear weapons, for their WMD project," the official said. The company is on a U.S. list of firms banned from buying equipment such as the special oscilloscopes that can be used to test and manufacture nuclear weapons.

Like others interviewed for this report, the American official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the political sensitivity of the case, the records of which have been sealed by a federal judge. The judge also has imposed a gag order on all participants.

U.S. officials suspect that the Pakistani government was the customer behind another purchase they say Humayun Khan made from Karni: 200 U.S.-made precision electronic switches that can be used in detonating nuclear weapons.

U.S. law prohibits the sale of equipment that can be used in nuclear weapons programs to Pakistan and some other countries as part of the effort to curb nuclear proliferation. Officials accuse Humayun Khan and Karni of conspiring to break those laws by concealing the nature of the transactions. Humayun Khan has not been charged with any crime, but the Commerce Department on Jan. 31 banned him from doing business in the U.S. for 180 days.

Halting illegal transfers of nuclear weapons components is a cornerstone of the administration's Proliferation Security Initiative, and the departments of Commerce and Homeland Security moved quickly to pursue leads after Karni's arrest.

His cooperation has allowed U.S. officials to significantly expand their investigation. As many as several dozen suspects are under scrutiny in Pakistan, India, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, officials say.

Humayun Khan's involvement in the deal aroused concern because he has been linked to several militant groups, including the All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, a Pakistani party that allegedly supports fighters in the disputed territory of Kashmir.

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